New Mexico & the Vietnam War: Portrait of a Generation
Through The Lens
Photos by Jake Lopez
(Note: this is the full transcript of the Baca interview, edited only for readability)
Well I just graduated from high school. My Dad had a farm and he had us working all the time. Pretty much for the board and meals. I visited with an uncle living in Santa Fe who was in the Navy. He told me, "Well, why don't you join the Navy and see the world?" I really hadn't given it much thought. All I knew is that I had to get out from the ranch and have my own world, my own thing going.
I joined. I guess I really wasn't paying attention or I can't recall that there was a war going on at that time. After basic training, my orders were to report to San Diego to a destroyer. About ten days later we're going to Westpac. They never really said Vietnam 'till I finally asked one of my buddies. I just figured well okay that's, that's where they want me, and I'll serve my time.
"It was exciting, in a way. But, at the same time you're scared for your life."
The Navy was a place where I could get away, didn't have to worry about getting fed or a roof over my head. It was a totally new experience. It was all real, especially when we started firing the 5-inch guns. I was assigned to a mount 51 LSAT, the powder loader, mount 51, so I had firsthand experience with those guns going off. It was exciting, in a way. But, at the same time you're scared for your life.
We were accurate up to eight miles inland, blowing up the roads or bridges that were supplying the enemy. I'd say 90-percent was at night, and sometimes you could feel it's gonna be a rough night and sure enough... You were up pretty much most of the night, providing gunfire. If you had 15-20 minutes, you roll up in a corner take a quick nap. Until there's another firing order, then more rounds.
When General Quarters ended you could walk on deck at night and you can actually see the mountains that you saw during the day. At night they it looks like a city was out there, but there was nothing but jungle. They would ask for let's say 50 rounds. Once you gave them the 50 rounds they would check to see if you destroyed that particular area. But, the most amazing is seeing the forest at night looking like it was a city, you know, just lit up with all the ammunition, all the gunfire from other ships and also from inland. It was scary. You figure if you're firing at them they can very well fire back at you, so you're like a sitting duck, really, on a pond, you know. You didn't know from which angle they're gonna shoot at you.
We were also doing a search and rescue. So if the MiGs are out, if a pilot got hit, they would try to make it to the water. And, we actually had rescued a couple of pilots. It was a challenge, in a way, you know, to find where the pilot was. They were excited, you know, to see us and to be rescued, and then of course they'd send a helicopter after them to pick them up. There were some MiGs, I don't know if they're trying to go below the radars so they actually flying so low the force of the Jets was making a ripple on the water. You’d see them come by and roar right by us. I don’t think they were trying to show off, it was for real. It wasn't for play. They meant business.
It’s, 50 years or close to it, it's still like it happened yesterday. It doesn't go away. It doesn't go away. You see the sampans, fishing with the whole family and at night they’d set up their M50 machine guns, start firing. Once they fire, we pretty much blew them out of the water. Because they had chickens and pigs with them you’d see feathers in the water. And other things.
Not all of them were armed, so you really didn't know which were the South Vietnamese, and which were the north. During the day you could see them out there fishing. At night they’d turn on you. We prayed every day. When General Quarters came on we thought we could survive this one, maybe not.
One time on a patrol boat, I was going inland to pick up supplies and we got ambushed. Just all hell broke loose. I remember the guy with me got hit and all I can remember is this blast hitting my head. I lost a lot of memory from that. I got some shrapnel on my legs, but, you know, it wasn't as serious as the other guys who were there.
It will never go away. It’ll stay with me forever. I've had help since probably 2002. There's a Vet Center here in Santa Fe, so I've got some help there. I guess the reason is, you really don't know what you have. PTSD wasn't a thing back then. People just saw you a little different and you felt different, but you really didn't know what your problem was. You have anger, or just the things that take you back without even realizing what it was. So, the counseling really helped open up my eyes. It's not just you and then when you see your other brothers in there and with the same thing. Then you kind of feel more together, that it is a sickness that not only you have, but also a lot of your brothers that were in combat.
I was always kind of shy. I would rather listen to the other people talk and so I really didn't. That's always been my problem. I don't really open up and so always kept that inside. The counselor said you got to release it. My way of dealing with it was to run a lot. The counselor said “Well, that's one of your ways of dealing with it.” If you're running you're not conscientiously thinking about stuff like that. It kind of helps you deal with it.
Yet, it just like anything else, if you know what's wrong, what's troubling you, it's easier to cope. I was always working. My kids said I was a workaholic and I think that was just my way of self-medicating. There's some self-medicate by drinking. I didn't want to do that. So I was always working. I always had something going on. I felt my best when I was running. I mean, I could run five miles before going to work, come back and go play basketball for two hours. I would just clear my mind during that time.
What was troubling me was coming back alive, surviving the war, knowing how many of us didn't make it back. So, you kind of feel a guilt. Why is it we lost so many, but yet I was able to come home?
I've been trying to let it go but it comes back. I have my good days and my bad days, and I think anybody that knows me well knows when it's a good day and when it's bad. Rainy days are the trigger. It just rains so much in Vietnam. After the war, being employed you never disclosed that you were in Vietnam. I thought I was the only one that didn't disclose it. All I put on my resume for those two years was U.S. Navy. That was it. Nothing else. I had this job and once they knew I was in Vietnam they got rid of me. They thought I was crazy.
I still like to have my back to the wall when I go to a restaurant. I’ve had where I walked out if there was Vietnamese in there. Can’t do it. I was called to jury duty and there was a Japanese or Vietnamese, and I told the administrators, either he goes or I go. But, it's not ‘gonna be nice if you keep us together. But things like that, trigger you. As we grow older, you become a little bit better in tune with society, but it's still hard for me to accept a Vietnamese. Sometimes you realize wow, one of them got away.
After two tours, I was ready to get out. I thought I was going to see the world. My buddies would go out and drink. I was underage so I couldn't drink. I was 20 when I got out and I couldn't even have a beer in the states. But, when I left, I flew down to San Francisco and spent about three days getting processed out. When I went to the airport, of course we were still in uniform, so the protestors called us baby killers. One guy spit at me. You know, it was just a depressing that they would feel that way but somebody was actually fighting for their freedom. So, that's why I didn't want to continue. It made me feel like I was betrayed. Of course he probably didn't know that, or apparently they did, since they were calling us baby killers. I actually wore my uniform until I got home.
I was glad to be home in a way, but by the same token, I felt lost. I felt the friends that I had before were still kids. I felt like I didn't really fit in. I got married between tours, so I had a wife, but still there still was something was missing. I couldn't figure out what it was, but there was something definitely missing. You just gotta hold on to your family and try to make the best out of it, and without really telling much, either. So, of course, the nightmares kind of said a few things. They're pretty intense and they seem really real. Sometimes I’d have dreams about drowning. My wife says that I'm struggling. I’m kicking like I was actually drowning.
I saw a lot of bad things, especially what we saw on the water. You know, you see body parts and stuff like that, and it just comes back to you. I think the more you grow and mature the more you have an appreciation for human lives. We were at eighteen, nineteen, you don't, really don't care. Your mind hasn't developed to really acknowledge what's going on. So that that kind of violence bothers me sometimes, I guess. Going back to nightmares, you wake up and realize you're back home and you're not over there. But it's so real. It doesn't go away.
I’m usually awake by two. Just check the perimeter, see if everything’s OK. Go back to bed. I wish it, I could just forget it. Counseling has helped diminish it a little bit I guess, but it's still in the back of your head. It all depends what goes on that day, or what I watched on TV that sometimes they will trigger a nightmare.
I think of my fellow veterans, you don't have to say a word to them. They know. We all know… war is war. It's the younger people that don't know. In fact, I even tried to go to the Desert Storm, but they told me I was too old. I was trying to save a young man’s or lady's brain from experiencing what I had experienced. I was over 35 so he said no. So, it's some of the protesters that don't really know what it's like. Don't know that you're doing what you're told to do, not that you really have an option. I guess you could have an option and go AWOL, but that that wasn't an option for me. Now it's time for somebody else to keep America be safe.
One thing that bothers me is I don't know what the difference between a conflict and a war is. I mean, if we lost over 58,000 men and women, you know, to me it's a war. People will say well it was just a conflict. It wasn't even a real war. Well, walk in my shoes one day and then you tell me if it was a conflict or a war? When you actually, you feel your life is on the line then you can tell me what it was.
Being in the service it makes a man out of you quick. You either grow up or you’re going to have a lot more problems. As far as what the war did to me, it did what it did. I really don't resent it. I try to cope with it, to the best of my knowledge and sometimes it gets pretty dark. There are days or nights, they get pretty dark. I think it was just part of my life at that point. It does change you. I think it changes anybody. I don't care how strong of a person you are, how strong of a mind you have, when you see that stuff it sticks to you and it doesn't go away.
It made me realize what the world really is like. I think war is a way of controlling the population, personally. It's a means of our Heavenly Father, if you deplete so many men it's going to reduce population. I think as long as human beings are in control there will be continuous wars.